By Amy Reiswig, Mayne Island Conservancy Bat Ambassador
It started with a party; specifically, a bat party. On the pre-Halloween weekend, I festooned my place with dollar store bat decorations, and people came riffing on “bat” – in their “bat”hrobe, as “bat”teries, or coyly “bat”ting their false eyelashes. People loved it, and the bat party ran for over 20 years, first in Montreal, then in Victoria and, pre-Covid, even here on Mayne. But as my bat paraphernalia grew, so did my curiosity about the creatures themselves. And I got labelled: the bat lady. Friends sent me articles about the adorable Honduran white bat, which looks like a cotton ball with yellow ears and piggy nose. Or about the bumblebee bat – at 2 grams, the smallest species of bat and, some say, the world’s smallest mammal. Or videos of rescued flying fox babies wrapped up in blankets, nibbling bananas and wiggling their ears. I got hooked on the real things.
Why Celebrate Bats?
Bats fascinate many of us, in part because they are mysterious – mostly small, fast, hard to see in the night, excellent at hiding in tiny spaces during the day – but also because pop culture has long taught us to fear them. Every year we see images of them as fang-baring vampires or as emblems of haunted and spooky places. But as I came to learn through my work with the Mayne Island Conservancy’s community bat program, the truth is that bats are friends to the environment and, therefore, to us.
When I was invited to become a Bat Ambassador for the Conservancy, I couldn’t say no. Here was an opportunity to bring my celebration of these strange but amazing animals to the community, and also to learn specifically about our seven local species – some of which I had already observed circling above my front porch or skimming the sunset-silvered waters of Campbell Bay.
Detecting Bats and How to Help
From Mayne’s smallest, the California Myotis, weighing between 3.3 and 5.4 grams, to our largest – the Hoary Bat, with a wingspan of up to 43 centimeters and weighing up to 35 grams – bats are busy beings. They provide incredibly useful pest control services, able to eat up to 600 mosquitoes an hour, as well as important nutrient cycling through spreading their guano (fancy word for poop), which is an excellent fertilizer. And bats have much more to fear from us than we do from them, like habitat loss, climate change and insect population decline – i.e., their food source – due to pesticides, invasive species, extreme weather and more. Bats are even hunted by our beloved cats, who are able to hear the bat calls that we can’t. Sadly, half of BC’s 16 bat species are listed as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered.
But what I have also learned is that there’s lots we can do, as individuals and as a community, to be bat friendly, and the Conservancy can help. My favourite part of the community bat program involves site visits and bat counts. How exciting to set up on a property just before sunset, settle in and then watch a series of secretive, small shapes emerge – from above doors or out from under eaves, shingles and roof peaks – before they swoop off into an aerial ballet against a deep blue sky. And thanks to the wonders of technology, we are even able to “see” their otherwise silent (to us) echolocation calls. The Echo Meter is a device that plugs into an iPad, detects bat calls and translates them into frequencies our ears can hear and into a wave pattern we can see. Each species of bat has a distinct type of call, and the Conservancy’s Echo Meter can even tell us which species are flying nearby. We might not always see bats, but they are all around us, doing their good work!
Another part of the bat program involves collecting guano and sending it off for analysis, not only to confirm species ID but also to confirm health. Millions of bats across North America have died from a fungal infection called White Nose Syndrome. Thankfully, it hasn’t yet been found in BC bats, but we need to stay vigilant. So if you have bats on your property, enjoy them but also please report them to the Conservancy.
April 17 is International Bat Appreciation Day, and it’s a great time to pause and rethink what we know about bats. I encourage you to take time and learn more about these fascinating creatures, who are just now emerging from hibernation to again share our skies, homes, woodpiles, trees – even patio umbrellas – and who rely on us to help their habitats and populations stay healthy and strong. They deserve much more than just a party.